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Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
Recent news on the higher education scene has turned attention to the Asian American case, or cases we should say. A team of education researchers led by Dr. Robert Teranishi used data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the University of California higher education system to make the case that Asian American ethnic groups are not all performing in the “model minority” way. As some readers know, Asian Americans tend to be grouped together as if they were a racial equivalent to “white” “black” and sometimes “Hispanic.”
When this kind of grouping occurs, scholars and interested citizens look for similarities and differences between racial groups on outcomes like educational attainment, household income, poverty levels, health etc. From this classification approach Asian Americans tend to appear exemplary on a number of outcomes. Take for example, last year’s Pew report on Asian Americans. Using the American Community Survey, Pew shows an aggregate figure for bachelor’s degree attainment and median household income in 2010 for Asian Americans. As the title of their figure states “Asian Americans Lead Others in Education, Income.”
Teranishi and colleagues’ report disaggregates, that is, splits into smaller groups, the Asian American classification using the same data, and this is what they find. In this first graph we see bachelor’s degree attainment across multiple Asian American groups and we find surprising differences across the board. At the one end, Taiwanese and Asian Indian Americans report over 71% within each group with a bachelor’s degree. At the other end, about 12% of Laotian and 15% of Hmong Americans claim the same educational attainment. So while it is the case that Asian Americans as a group appear to have a lot of education, the reality is that only certain groups are showing this level attainment.
Now let’s look at household income. Using the median household income ($66,000 according to the Pew report) for all Asian Americans, Teranishi et al. disaggregate that figure and show the following.
As you can see, at one extreme, Asian Indian Americans exceed the Asian American household income mean by over $21,000 on average. Hmong Americans are below that same mean by almost the same amount. In fact 9 out of the 15 groups are below the Asian American mean. And 7 of these groups are lower than the white American average.
What this suggests is that Asian Americans are highly diverse socioeconomically. To the extent that the model minority myth is applied to this collection of SES-diverse groups, it masks the evident differences among them. Read the full report here to find out more about the benefits of disaggregation especially in higher education within the University of California system. Similar kinds of analyses were conducted by Dr. Paul Ong and associates who disaggregated homeownership and cash public assistance rates across Asian ethnic groups in several different areas of the US.
The slide show report on some of their findings is here, and the regional reports are here. Like Teranishi et al.’s report, disaggregation of Asian American homeownership, other assets and public assistance shows that the rates of these socioeconomic patterns vary a lot by Asian ethnic group.
Some might ask: then why is the overall Asian American average so high to begin with. The answer is a matter of population size. Look back at the disaggregated figures. Pick out these groups: Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese. These groups take up 83% of all Asian Americans. Statistically, the other groups are not numerically large enough to alter the educational attainment or household income average of the largest six groups since they take up a greater share of the population. We should remember too, sizable numbers of Asian Americans in the larger groups do not share in the picture of “success” that their same-ethnic peers experience.
In our racialized society, we like our groups to be simple; we prefer to ignore the diverse realities within the groupings we create. By using “Asian American” as shorthand for “the successful minority” we mask major differences in the outcomes that presumably all Asian Americans share. Notably, our social programs often utilize this assumption and give next to nothing for vulnerable Asian Americans. This in turn makes Asian American inequalities invisible.
Hopefully more leaders and concerned citizens will grow aware of the problem we create when we use the stereotype of “the high –achieving, hard-working minority.” Reports and studies, like the one produced by Dr. Teranishi that disaggregate the Asian American data story expand our own understanding that this story is not just diverse culturally, but socioeconomically as well.
This is the third of my three-part list of the best documentaries that focus on immigration and are great choices for showing in high school and college immigration classes. This third and final part will focus specifically on issues related to socioeconomic attainment, mobility, and assimilation — the individual-, community-, and institutional-level processes involved as immigrants (regardless of their legal status) become integrated into the rest of U.S. society.
Part 1 focused on the historical and global context of immigration and Part 2 looked at unauthorized immigration. The following list is organized by topic and corresponds to the chronological order in which I discuss each topic in my “Sociology of Immigration” course. For each topic, I highlight the documentary that I tend to show the most often, followed by other videos that are good choices for that topic as well.
Socioeconomic Mobility and Settlement Patterns
What are the historical and contemporary patterns of educational, occupational, and income attainment on the part of immigrants and how do such patterns compare across waves of immigration, nationality/ethnic group, and in relation to U.S.-born racial/ethnic groups? Also, what are some recent developments regarding where immigrants settle, how they create their own communities and enclaves, and role of these ethnic communities in their overall assimilation process?
Saigon USA: Summarizes the exodus of refugees out of Viet Nam, how many of them eventually settled in Orange County CA, the formation of the Little Saigon enclave, and the ways in which Vietnamese Americans reflect both old and new ways, and the ways in which they’re socially divided yet united as well.
In this section, I focus on the assimilation and integration process on the individual level. Specifically, I look at the different forms of forms of assimilation that immigrants undergo, the factors that affect their own personal racial/ethnic/cultural identity, and how community- and institutional factors influence whether immigrants experience upward or downward assimilation through time.
The Neo-African Americans: Using interviews and case studies, this documentary explores the experiences of African and Black Caribbean immigrants to highlight the inter-ethnic issues involved as African immigrants navigate the transition to U.S. society and where they fit into the larger “Black” community in the U.S.
This section explores assimilation and integration specifically related to native language retention vs. English acquisition among immigrants, their religious patterns and the roles that religious organizations play in their lives, and their patterns of participating in the political process at various levels and in particular, the prospects of immigrants leveraging their growing population size into greater political power.
Latinos ’08: This question of Latino immigrants parlaying their growing numbers into more political power is at the heart of this excellent PBS documentary. It explores the demographic changes taking place within the Latino population and the communities in which they’re increasingly prominent, their history of activism, and some challenges they face internally and from more established racial/ethnic groups in the volatile world of politics.
In this final section of my “Sociology of Immigration” course, I reflect back on where immigrants to the U.S. have been — politically, economically, and culturally — and just as important, take a look at where immigration and immigration policy are headed as we move forward into the 21st century and in particular, as we become more culturally diverse, globalized, and transnational.
California and the American Dream: The New Los Angeles: This documentary examines how Los Angeles transformed from a conservative, virtually all-White city into a vibrant and multicultural metropolis. Through historical and contemporary examples, it illustrates both the challenges and rewards involved in creating and managing such a diverse social, political, and economic space.
We all know by now that the previously underdog movie Slumdog Millionaire is a huge hit around the world, but particularly in the U.S., having just won eight Academy Awards and grossing over $120 million dollars in North America. As MSNBC writes, the movie also symbolizes the cultural/popular emergence of Indian Americans as a community:
The past few weeks have underscored their increasingly high profile: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal gave the Republican response Tuesday night to President Barack Obama’s speech to Congress, while Dr. Sanjay Gupta is under consideration to be Obama’s surgeon general.
Model and cooking author Padma Lakshmi finished another “Top Chef” TV season, then became the celebrity face for a new Procter & Gamble Co. Pantene shampoo line as well as a Hardee’s hamburger promotion. Anoop Desai, dubbed “Noop Dogg,” drew fans with his singing on this year’s “American Idol,” and Aziz Ansari was in TV’s medical comedy “Scrubs” before moving to a regular role in the upcoming comedy series “Parks and Recreation.” . . .
Indian-Americans have been one of the fastest-growing and most successful immigrant groups, though [Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor and dean of student affairs for Columbia University's journalism school] and other Indian-Americans are quick to point out that some Indians continue to struggle economically and socially in this country. . . .
For years, they have proliferated in this country in the fields of health care, information technology and engineering, with higher education levels and incomes than national averages. And recent years have brought more Indian heads of major U.S. companies — PepsiCo Inc.’s Indra Nooyi is among about a dozen current CEOs.
They also are making their presence felt in journalism. Gupta, a neurosurgeon and medical correspondent, and Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, have their own weekend shows on CNN, for example.
Slumdog Millionaire’s extraordinary success is well-earned, although we should note that not all Indians and Indian Americans are enthralled by its story. Nonetheless, I agree with the MSNBC article that the film’s success does have cultural, as well as economic, significance for American society and the Indian American community in general.
Among other things, the article also spends some time discussing the political emergence of Bobby Jindal, who despite his less-than-successful televised response to Barack Obama’s recent address to Congress, is undoubtedly being groomed to be a high-profile national leader for the Republican party for years to come. By the way, CBS’s 60 Minutes just did a very interesting profile segment on him, embedded below (about 12 minutes long):
The part of the segment that I found most interesting was that he and his wife hardly identify as Indian American at all — they clearly prefer to think of themselves as just plain “Americans” and “Louisianians.” That is their prerogative of course — not everyone who has non-American ancestry should be compelled to identify with that particular ethnicity. But I am interested to hear what Indian Americans think of Jindal’s sense of his identity (apart from his politics) — does it bother Indian Americans that one of the most high-profile Indian Americans in the country has little if any personal attachment to his ethnic roots?
In the meantime, back to the Indian American community as a whole, the MSNBC article is not really groundbreaking news. As my article on Socioeconomic Statistics and Demographics show, Indian Americans are clearly the most socioeconomically successful of the major Asian American ethnic groups. As such, it should be no surprise that, along with their socioeconomic success, their cultural prominence would soon increase as well.
At the same time, I also wonder what effect political events back in India will have on Indian Americans and the perception that others have of Indian Americans. Specifically, there is still a lot of suspicion and even hostility towards India and the perception that is largely responsible for many jobs being outsourced away from the U.S. and that India is profiting from globalization at the expense of American workers. This is likely to continue being the case as the current recession gets worse before it gets better.
Second, the recent and continuing terrorist attacks and related violence in India have many people worried not just about the physical safety of people inside of India, but also of India’s political stability and even its future economic development. Both of these concerns affect Indian Americans both here in the U.S. and around the world in terms of their public image and of course, the well-being of friends and relatives back in India.
Nonetheless, I for one welcome this cultural emergence of our fellow Americans of Indian descent. Our society and its diverse mosaic of culture is enriched even further by it.